Interview with Dan Linford – Atheism in Virginia

Recently This Secular Life talked about ways that society silences nonbelievers. Attention to experiences of the college-age generation was heightened by reporting on Blacksburg, Virginia. Dan Linford, a student and an atheist living in Blacksburg, recounts what he has seen there, and reflects on what it like to be nonreligious.

The London Telegraph article about Blacksburg, published in February 2014, was titled: “Is America losing faith? Atheism on the rise but still in the shadows” and the article byline includes this phrase, “many keep quiet for fear of alienation in one Bible-minded Virginia town.” Among the students interviewed in that article was Dan Linford, who has been the president of Freethinkers at Virginia Tech.

Here is the text of my own interview with Dan Linford. Our gratitude goes to Dan for taking the time to give us such extensive and helpful answers. Read more about Dan at his blog (Libere) at www.skepticfreethought.com/libere.

 

John: “First, let’s talk about your background. Were you always non-religious?”

Dan: That’s actually a complicated question. I grew up in a family with two nominally Christian parents and before the age of about 10, I accepted their beliefs as basically fact. However, their particular beliefs would not be recognizable as Christian to most of the people in the area I now live in. My mother identifies as Catholic and feels very strongly about her personal spirituality, but she certainly doesn’t believe in an exclusivist soteriology (that is, she doesn’t believe that one needs to accept Jesus as one’s savior to go to heaven upon one’s death). Instead, she believes that God loves everyone – which she understands as meaning that Jesus will save everyone regardless of their beliefs (though, perhaps, if you commit mass-genocide God will see to it that you are punished in the afterlife). That’s essentially what I believed in when I was very young.

I remember hearing one day at school that some people didn’t believe in God and I wouldn’t believe the teacher that that was true. I thought God’s existence was the same sort of fact, delivered from adult authority figures, as “Columbus discovered America” or “there are 50 states in the country”. I hadn’t yet given much thought to how we establish conclusions. God’s existence seemed like just another bit of information I was supposed to accept. It seemed utterly bizarre to find out that there are those didn’t accept it!

My father is generally apathetic about religion – to the extent that he simply does not care whether or not God exists – though he culturally identifies as protestant. He didn’t talk much about whether various religious beliefs were true or false while I was growing up, though he taught me to be a skeptic. We would watch “documentaries” about UFOs and then he’d explain to me how those sorts of things were faked. He’s an engineer and he encouraged my brothers and I to pursue science and technology. I grew up in a medium sized, affluent suburb of Rochester, New York, called Fairport. Fairport is located in north western New York, approximately five and a half hours from New York city. Drive in essentially any direction from Fairport and it does not take very long to be in the absolute middle of no where.

As a child, Creationism and the other hallmarks of the contemporary Religious Right were things that you’d hear about occasionally on TV. Those were far away, distant forms of Christianity that were not practiced by what my parents considered to be good, sensible Christians. It would certainly not be normative in my hometown to say that the Earth was six thousand years old. I do not want to leave your readers with the impression that my home town was non-religious, that there were zero Creationists, or that conservatives were difficult to find. My home town is fairly old fashioned and predominantly Catholic. The non-religious are in a clear minority. There were some people who self-identified as Creationists, including one of my physical education instructors and a classmate in my 10th grade biology class. And although I found it puzzling, there were a few houses decorated with Confederate flags (“the South will rise again… in upstate New York!”).

I have a very vivid memory of the moment I lost my belief in God. The moment happened when I was about 10 or 11 years old. I was laying in the grass in my backyard on a warm day. I thought to myself, “if there is a God, or if any part of the Bible is true, that is something we should be able to show with science. And until we do show it with science, we should not believe one way or another.” I don’t know why, but I sensed that this was not something my parents would have been comfortable with. For several years afterwards, I told my parents that I wasn’t sure what I believed, but there must be something out there. All the religions had so much in common. Secretly, I knew that this all of the commonality between the religions could be explained by commonalities in human psychology. The only thing out there was the collective human imagination.

But by the time I was in high school, I was adamant about my atheism. I could not imagine why anyone would think anything else. It was just so obvious – actually, more obvious to me then than it is to me now – that there was no God.

At the same time, I had harvested within myself a kind of mystical spirituality. While I identified as an atheist, I simultaneously identified as a Buddhist. My version of Buddhism was stripped of all of its supernatural elements, my spirituality focused on Carl Sagan’s vision of the Cosmos, and I regularly practiced meditation. In those years, I had no issue with identifying these orientations as religious; never having experienced organized religion, I identified religion with the kind of warm, fuzzy feelings I got when I read popular science books, stargazed, or did mathematics.

 

John: “How did you become involved with the Freethinkers at Virginia Tech?”

Dan: When I began at Tech, I was a physics PhD student. In the social circles that I ran in, I became equated with some folks who communicated to me that they were headed over to this “atheist club” (I would come to find out that while Freethinkers at Virginia Tech is atheist-inclusive, atheism is not the central focus). They wanted to know if I would come along. After I became involved with that club, it consumed my life. The club awakened this side of myself that had been lying dormant for several years, briefly coming alive in various undergraduate philosophy courses. Soon, I was writing a blog, attending conferences, and being as active a part of the Freethought movement as I could. I’m sure that there were a number of people who found this new version of myself to be quite annoying – my newly re-awakened atheism was loud, arrogant, and took a few years to calm down – but it marked a turning point in my life.

One important difference between undergraduate and graduate school is the amount of free time that one has. As a graduate student, you are not supposed to have free time. This meant that all the time I was devoting to Freethinking was time that I was not devoting to physics. I eventually came to the realization that I needed to change career paths. Much to the shock of nearly everyone in my life, I moved to philosophy.

 

John: “I understand that you are writing a master’s thesis about the relationship between 18th century atheism and some issues in philosophy of religion. How did you become interested in that area?”

Dan: Last year, I was looking for something to write about concerning 18th century atheism. It’s not easy to come up with research questions, particularly if one is new to a discipline. However, a few years prior I had come across Gavin Hyman’s paper in the Cambridge Companion to Atheism and his subsequent book (A Short History of Atheism). One of the claims that Hyman makes is that modern atheism can be explained by a neglect of a particular Thomistic doctrine – the doctrine of analogy – sometime prior to the early modern period. This was a version of what I now call the Straw Gods Argument: if only atheists had been exposed to the proper form of theism, they never would have rejected it.

When I first came across that argument, I didn’t know enough about the history of atheism to assess its soundness. But as of last year, I had read enough to be quite skeptical of the sort of claims Hyman had made. So I wrote a short piece responding to Hyman which made its way into the eastern division meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers. It wasn’t long after that I began expanding this project beyond Hyman. On the one hand, I had found an interesting historical issue to investigate: an 18th century debate over theological semantics that had somehow heavily influenced several prominent religious skeptics (i.e., David Hume, Anthony Collins, Paul-Henri Thiry Baron d’Holbach) and an interesting philosophical puzzle: are these 18th century arguments decisive against Thomistic theology or not? That project became my thesis.

 

John: “What other areas of philosophy are you interested in?”

Dan: I’m broadly interested in the relationship between science and metaphysics or science and religion. There is a whole lot of really interesting stuff happening right now in the metaphilosophical discussion that is relevant to the former. There are also several individuals – like Maarten Boudry and Massimo Piggliucci – who are attempting some sort of resurrection of the demarcation problem, which is obviously relevant to the latter. I’d certainly be interested in pursuing those areas further in my doctoral work.

 

John: “As my readers already know, you’ve been interviewed recently about non-religion in southern Virginia. What sort of treatment have you seen religious people give to the non-religious in your area?”

Dan: I’ve personally seen a variety of responses. When we do tabling events, for the most part, people either do not care or, occasionally, have a look of distaste without approaching us. There are some who will actively approach and recite standard apologetics.

 

John: “I understand that you did a debate on your campus against Max Andrews. What sort of campus response did you receive?”

Dan: For the most part, I didn’t see a response. And that’s probably for the best; that was the first debate that I did and my arguments were not at the level they are at now. Nonetheless, I came to learn that there was an undergraduate woman in attendance at that debate who felt as though the Spirit had moved her to approach me and bring me to Christ. She’s very nice and always listens carefully to anything I have to say, but, to say the least, I have my doubts about whether she will be successful in her goals.

She didn’t approach me until about a year and a half after the debate, which I think is typical of my experience with Christians on this campus. While I will occasionally meet someone who is very forceful with their beliefs, most of the people I run into are passive – either because they do not care to convert others, because they are nervous about witnessing to people, because they don’t feel confident enough to state their case, or some combination thereof. I would suspect that I’m more eager to talk about religion than most of the religious individuals I have met!

But I wouldn’t describe my experience as typical. I’m a graduate student in a largely non-religious department who seldom leaves his social group. I have heard from several people who are close to me that they have had wildly different experiences, especially when they have had to live with religious individuals in the dorms. For me to meet religious folks, for the most part, I have had to actively seek them out. The exception was the presbyterian minister who accosted me in a coffee shop. Seeing the CFI sticker on my laptop (which reads “You don’t need God to hope, to care, to love, to live”), he demanded that its message was a contradiction. I was nervous, had never been approached in that way before, and have to admit that my response to him was not particularly strong.

 

John: “Can you describe more about the experiences which other students have communicated to you?”

Dan: I’ve heard several stories from a number of undergraduates. One about a religious roommate throwing water on them to “baptize” them while they were trying to sleep, several concerning RAs abusing their positions to advertise Christian events (or otherwise support Christian hegemony), or hallmates lining up outside one’s door in an attempt to convert the heathen. Other undergraduates, when I relate these stories to them, look at me incredulously and inform me that they’ve never heard of incidents of that sort. I think it’s important to realize that Tech has over thirty one thousand students. It’s not particularly surprising that there is a diversity of religious orientations on campus and that some people are luckier than others.

The bigger problem facing many of my close friends is the relationship they have with their families. I know several people who grew up in extremely conservative, Dominionist forms of Christianity that, quite frankly, are deeply emotionally abusive. Some of them have come out to their families as non-theists, some have simply stopped discussing religion altogether, and others are deeply closeted. They come from communities where children are bred as weapons in spiritual warfare; so the fact that their children grew up to be atheists is directly contrary to everything those communities value. They see us as the enemy and, in some sense, they are right.

 

John: “The American religious landscape has changed dramatically over the last few decades. Can you describe an example of how those changes have impacted your campus?”

Dan: There was a report written by Lifeway, an evangelical poling organization, which indicated that “80 percent of those who attend church one or more times a month, believe they have a personal responsibility to share their faith, but 61 percent have not told another person about how to become a Christian in the previous six months” (http://www.lifeway.com/Article/research-survey-sharing-christ-2012). I have no idea if their data is reliable or not, but their conclusions seem to be consistent with what I see on campus. Most of the evangelical students I meet are not interested in witnessing to either Freethinkers at Virginia Tech or to myself.

Anecdotally, I have noticed that women are much more likely to be witnessed to and that those students who are interested in apologetics are overwhelmingly more often male than not. I suspect that has something to do with the way that gender roles have been socially constructed within evangelical churches.

I suspect these observations are part of a larger trend. In most contemporary western societies – and the United States is no exception – religion has changed from a public activity to a privatized, individualized activity, with people seeking answers for themselves and respecting that others will have independent spiritual journeys.

The way that society has dealt with gender as these changes have occurred is very interesting. Christian groups tend to have a female laity with a male leadership. Some churches don’t even allow female leadership. Atheist groups tend to be male dominated, with a minority of women. And the degree to which groups of either sort are accepting of non-cis gendered individuals varies.

A major part of that story is the politicization of religion. A lot of young people either forget or are unaware that the Religious Right was born only a few decades ago. To someone living during the Kennedy era, the present truce between American protestant and Catholic groups, formulated on the basis of a common socially conservative ideology, would have seemed nearly impossible. The idea that the Republican party would be so heavily associated with Christianity and Democrats with irreligion would have seemed unlikely as well.

 

John: “How is that shifting landscape visible in Blacksburg?”

Dan: One can observe that sort of political fracturing of viewpoints of religion on the Virginia Tech campus. Freethinkers at Virginia Tech’s on-campus reputation involves a strong association with liberal politics. Officially, we do not take political stances on issues other than education, secularism, and religious tolerance and we openly welcome people from any political perspective. But we have come out in opposition to both the misinformation and poor tactics of a local pro-life group. In doing so, we partnered with a local feminist organization. In addition, we have had instructors from the university’s LGBTQ office provide us with Safe Zone training. Personally, I am of the opinion that neither of those should associate us with any political persuasion, but it is an aspect of our present political climate that it does so. Liberal politics are a common point of discussion in our group, many of us identify as pro-feminist, and I would describe the group as having a general interest in social justice.

That can contrasted with some of the religious groups on campus. The pro-life group that we have counter protested against has a strong unofficial association with the Roman Catholic student group. I have observed Cru meetings a number of times and each time found a number of things that were deeply problematic from my political and moral perspectives (the use of sexist and homophobic language, for example, some of which I have documented on my blog).

 

John: “You mentioned that very few people have witnessed to your group. Has anyone made an attempt?”

Dan: There have been a few cases. There is one in particular that I would like to relate. A local evangelical contacted us wishing to give a presentation on Creationism. He was very young, probably only 19 years old. At that point in time, we let anyone give a talk who wanted to do so provided that we had the time for it. I do not think the talk was a smart idea on his part. In some sense, I felt bad for him because he had no idea what he was getting himself into.

He sent us an abstract for his talk so that we could post a description for our members. Someone made the wise choice to google the abstract and it turned out to be copied directly from Answers in Genesis. Almost everyone who attended read the full AiG article and had developed several critiques of it before he gave the talk. Several of our members who attended are working on their PhDs in various scientific fields. I don’t think he expected to contend with a nuclear physicist when he attempted to talk about radioactive dating.

I pressed him on the theological and philosophical issues. He had to contend with criticisms I provided from within Christian theology: the historical-critical method, which undermines his Biblical exegesis, and Karl Barth’s opposition to natural theology, which claims that design arguments are not properly Christ-centered. By the end of the evening, I had convinced him that his talk was heretical, idolatrous, and not properly Christ-centered. Worse, that this was not at all the way to bring people to Jesus (which he related to me as his actual goal). I related to him that I didn’t care how heretical he was, but it was obviously something he cared about. At some point, he told me that he would consult me first if he ever decided to give a talk like this again.

He passed out index cards for us to write additional questions and our contact information, in case any of us wanted to meet for coffee at some point in the future. None of us have heard back from him. I don’t think he expected us to attack his presentation on every level. It was obviously disturbing to him that his presentation had not gone in the direction he had anticipated.

 

John: “Has your campus group collaborated with local religious groups on any sort of projects?”

Dan: We’ve collaborated with Cru, the Christian Scholars Network (CSN), and with the Liberty University philosophy department. The collaboration between Liberty University and ourselves was the debate I participated in with Max Andrews. I contacted Liberty University out of desperation; none of our on-campus religious groups would agree to a debate.

For a long time, we could not identify a way in which to collaborate with Tech’s campus ministries. We repeatedly attempted to contact them for debates, discussions, or other intellectual activities of the sort that we enjoy doing. Finally, I reached the realization that we were proposing the wrong sort of events. The religious groups that we had contact with were essentially social groups and were not interested in intellectual activity. The obvious solution was to instead propose a social event. I proposed a potluck with Cru and that came together rather quickly.

Last year, we put together a panel discussion on science and religion in collaboration with the Christian Scholars Network. The video for that event can be found on our website.

 

John: “What sort of responses have you seen to the Telegraph article?”

Dan: The responses I’ve seen have been mostly positive, though some people have been skeptical about the level to which atheists are marginalized.

 

John: “What do you think is in store for the future of the American religious landscape?”

Dan: I think that the American religion will continue to diversify, privatize, and to become more tolerant of difference. I think that the largest obstacles facing Christian groups will be the extent to which they can respond to the changing moral intuitions of the American populace. It is possible – though it is probably far too early to tell – that the loudness of the present Religious Right represents the death throws of an older religious orientation, giving its last desperate yells before it finally disappears forever.

But I think we need to be careful not to be entirely too hasty. Even if the Religious Right does eventually disappear, that does not imply the end of supernatural beliefs, of organized rituals, of symbolic communities, and so forth, or imply the rise of atheism or of Freethought. We might instead be witnessing the emergence of a new way of being religious. For example, while it is the case that 30% of people under 30 identify as non-religious, the majority of that 30% identify as theists or polytheists.

 

John: “Do you think that the media’s discussion of the ‘Nones’ has been mistaken in some way?”

Dan: I think that the media’s discussion of the ‘Nones’ has focused too heavily on organized atheism and not focused enough on the other “non-religious” orientations. I see the media as having constructed for the popular mind an artificial “war” between (conservative) Christianity and atheism, as if those were the only perspectives on religion one could find within the United States.

To some extent, I think that shows up in the Telegraph article. It was careful to state that the majority of Nones are not atheists, but the reporter did not interview anyone that was “spiritual but not religious”, neopagan, or anyone from our several local New Age shops. I was very happy with this article – especially because the reporter was very mindful of several nuances I described to him – but there are still aspects to the story that went missing.

 

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About John Shook

John R. Shook, PhD, is a scholar and professor living in the Washington, D.C. area. He is research associate in philosophy and instructor in science education for the University at Buffalo. He is also President of Partners for Secular Activism, an educational nonprofit offering online classes of interest to the secular side of life at secularactivism.org. Click the About tab under the header to learn more about John.


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